At their worst, buffets are like sloppy summer-camp mess halls. At their best, they are heartland church suppers with a delirious overload of wonderful things to eat.
Harvest Table Buffet, located out South Augusta’s Gordon Highway, is not quite church-supper spectacular; but as downhome southern food goes, it’s a winner. Especially notable: baked chicken that is literally fall-off-the-bone tender; rutabagas that balance the root vegetable’s peppery tingle with just the right note of sweet; vividly flavored squash casserole; sultry-dark collard greens; really cheesy cheddar-chive biscuits; hushpuppies studded with sweet corn kernels.
The selection is immense, making it a challenge to decide what to put on a plate and what to leave behind (at least on the first pass through). A lady in front of me strode right past the copious salad fixins, ignoring catfish, pork chops, pot roast, spaghetti, baked chicken, all the vegetables and vegetable casseroles, buttered grits, stuffing and stewed tomatoes. She was on a mission: to get to the serving pan of fried chicken. Here she built a tall pile of breasts, thighs, and drumsticks that teetered precariously as she toted it to her table for a monomaniacal splurge. (It is good fried chicken, but tender more than crunchy. Honestly, in this place, I like baked better.)
Dessert demands a stalwart sweet tooth. The several cakes and puddings set out on two long, help-yourself tables are not meek confections. Peach cobbler, aglow with sugar, is more about pastry than fruit; and while banana pudding packs an impressive population of fresh banana slices, the sweetness of its silky pudding tends to overwhelm them. Boston cream pie, chocolate pie, and strawberry shortcake also are set out in all their colorful glory.
Although it looks like a hundred other, similar buffets throughout Dixie, Harvest Table is not an impersonal corporate operation. It’s still run by the family who opened it here in 1978. The staff who take care of customers, from the cash-register lady to waitresses who bring (and constantly refill) tumblers of sweet tea, are kind and hospitable. This is a nice place to eat.